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European parliament: Virtue signaling on Iran, with a sting

European parliament: Virtue signaling on Iran, with a sting

A largely symbolic vote to reimpose nuclear sanctions after Tehran's attack on Israel signals worsening ties

Europe

As most EU governments and the bloc’s high representative for foreign policy Josep Borrell try to emphasize the need to de-escalate tensions between Iran and Israel, the European Parliament has moved sharply in the opposite direction.

During its plenary session on April 25 the body adopted a resolution on “Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel, the need for de-escalation and an EU response” which included a series of ostensibly tough measures to set that response into motion.

Already the title betrays a pro-Israeli bias: it refers to Iran’s drone and missile attacks on Israel, but not to the equally unprecedented, and lethal, Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria, which was the direct trigger of the Iranian strike in the first place. Titles matter as they frame the debates and resolutions.

It’s easy to be cynical about Iran’s appeals to the inviolability of diplomatic premises when its revolutionary regime held the U.S. diplomats hostage in 1979 — an act never repudiated, much less apologized for, by the Islamic Republic. Regardless of Iran’s track record, however, as a self-proclaimed guardian of the international legality, the EU could be expected to be consistent on the matter.

The resolution does refer to the bombing of the Iranian consulate, but in a rather clever-by-half fashion: it “deplores” the attack but won’t say who perpetrated it. A last-minute amendment by the Left faction in Parliament pointing to the Israeli authorship was rejected by the majority.

But the real issue is the trifecta of measures within the resolution called for by the MEPs: invoking the snapback of all UN sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program if Iran fails to comply with its nuclear obligations under the JCPOA by a deadline to be set unilaterally by the E3 (France, Germany, the UK); adding the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to the EU terrorist list; and designating the Lebanese Hezbollah as terrorist organization in its entirety (currently only the military wing, not its affiliated political party, is classified as “terrorist” by the EU).

The Trans-Atlantic Institute, the Brussels-based office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), has hailed the adoption of these measures as a “historic, momentous decision” and praised the Parliament for “real leadership by calling for an end to the years of fruitless and toothless diplomacy that has only emboldened the regime in Iran.”

Yet the adopted measures do not amount to much. The European Parliament’s resolutions are not binding. The body does not set the EU’s foreign policy — it’s a prerogative of the Council of the EU. The decisions of the Council are taken by consensus among the 27 member states, at a proposal of the high representative Borrell who sets the agendas of the meetings of the bloc’s foreign ministers.

While the E3 is concerned with Iran’s nuclear progress, and French President Emmanuel Macron hinted in the wake of the Iranian strike on Israel that pressure has to be increased on Tehran also on the nuclear file, to trigger a snapback of the U.N. sanctions would require a political agreement with Washington. This may not be forthcoming as Biden signaled unwillingness to escalate matters with Tehran further. An U.N. snapback would most likely lead to Iran abandoning the Non-Proliferation Treaty and expelling the remaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, which, in turn, would dramatically increase the risk of an Israeli military action against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure or an Iranian push for a nuclear bomb. A big war in the Middle East is certainly not what Biden needs in the election year.

Of note, Borrell himself evinced a considerable skepticism about the usefulness of escalating sanctions during the parliamentary debate. He underscored that “sanctions are not policy, but only a tool of policy,” and that decades of piling sanctions on Iran have not led to positive changes in Iran’s policies. Rather than expressing support for the MEPs’ mulled ultimatum on the snapback, he stressed continued commitment to the nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

As to the mounting pressure to include the IRGC in the EU terrorist list, that, again, requires unanimity of the member states and, as Borrell repeatedly stressed, a judicial ruling in an EU member state implicating the IRGC in a terrorist activity. At the moment, none of these conditions seem to be present. Germany is leading the way for a tougher approach, but not all the member states are convinced that prescribing an entire security body of a foreign nation would advance the EU interests. Spain and Italy are among notable skeptics.

And the designation itself would largely be symbolic. The EU already has, and uses, the necessary tools to sanction individual IRGC members and related entities for a host of transgressions, such as human rights abuses and support for violent activities and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The full prescription of Hezbollah as a terrorist group — a long-term goal of the AJC — has likewise proved to be elusive. In 2013, in response to the French pressure to punish the Lebanese organization for its role in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the EU has invented a creative solution: designate the military wing of Hezbollah, but not the political one, in order to keep venues of dialogue with this influential Lebanese actor open.

Designating Hezbollah entirely would deprive the EU of that direct contact. That would be counterproductive as the EU leaders are clearly worried about the potential fallout of the war in the Middle East on Lebanon’s precarious stability — the country hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians which could be heading to Europe in the case of further destabilization.

Of further note, several European countries, such as Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Poland, deployed troops on the Lebanese-Israeli border as part of the UNIFIL peace-keeping mission. Declaring Hezbollah terrorist could potentially make these troops targets. These are far weightier considerations for the EU decision-makers than a European Parliament resolution.

In sum, more than a turning point in the EU strategy towards Iran, the European Parliament’s resolution may not add up to much more than a simple virtue-signaling exercise. Yet it would be wrong to completely dismiss its significance: its political message testifies, once again, to the abysmal state of the EU-Iran relations.

Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

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